Sound the spoiler alarm! If you haven't watched this episode, go away. Still with us? Good stuff. Yes, Martin Freeman’s other half, Amanda Abbington, plays the role of Watson’s bride-to-be, Mary Morstan. And yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, play Sherlock’s parents. Glad that’s out of the way.
I was lucky enough to watch a preview screening of The Empty Hearse at the BFI, which was followed by a Q&A with the stars (Freeman, Cumberbatch), the writer/co-creators (Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss), the director (Jeremy Lovering) and producer (Sue Vertue). With hundreds of fellow die-hard Holmes boys – okay, mainly Holmes girls – in attendance, there was A LOT of applause and even more laughter throughout the episode, so perhaps my appreciation for this first slice of the third season is a little higher than it might have been otherwise, but there you have it: I thought The Empty Hearse was great.
A few stand-out moments of what I’m calling “cheekiness”: addressing the gay slash fiction / fan fantasy that Holmes and Watson are an item, poking fun at “The Mind Palace” on the tube carriage car, the “Empty Hearse” obsessives, the false explanations for the fall (including Moriarty’s lean in for a kiss, plus Molly’s Tarzan-like smooch), Les Mis making Mycroft miserable, the casting choices mentioned above, putting on his coat like James Bond stepping into his dinner jacket…
In fact, thanks in part to M – sorry, Mycroft – giving his brother a mission for Queen and country, the whole show felt very Bondian. There’s the bomb plot, the baddie at the end with round spectacles (spoilt pussy cat out of shot, obviously) and the inherent You Only Live Twice-ishness of it all. Stretching the Bond comparison further, Cumberbatch’s double-0 detective is becoming part Moore, part Craig, with humour firmly at the show’s centre – see the moustachioed French waiter reveal – alongside physical action – see Holmes and Mary on a motorbike, tearing through London to find Watson in the bonfire (and the end of the moustachioed French waiter reveal too, come to think of it). Sherlock gets tortured, which reminded me of Casino Royale's ooooofiest scene. On top of the fun and games on the tube, Sherlock even looks out over Whitehall contemplatively, which couldn't get more Skyfall if it tried. During Watson's "I am not The Gay!" scene, Mrs. Hudson even says "Live and let live!". Too far? Right you are. I really wanted the bomb's counter to stop at 0:07, I really did.
It might interest both Bond and Sherlock nuts that the writer of the episode, Mark Gatiss, is a very big fan of 007. He even wrote the foreword to Mark O'Connell's book Catching Bullets: Memoirs Of A Bond Fan, which you can read here if you fancy. Gatiss is also – surprise, surprise – a London Underground buff, so that'll explain the Johnston Sans typeface used during the texting and deduction moments throughout the series. Incidentally, if you're a die-hard Conan Doyler, you'll have twigged it was the short story A Case Of Identity that was referenced when the stepfather keeps his stepdaughter in check by pretending to be her pen pal / online dating beau.
As with my other favourite episodes, the story is not what’s important here. What’s important is character development, and character interaction, and humour, and the sheer joy of it all. The rompiness, if that's a word. In the Q&A, Gatiss said: “As with the original Empty House, what is most important is getting them back together. The Doyle story is a very flimsy locked room mystery, which you can’t wait [to be over] and it’s essentially the same sort of thing here. It’s just a wonderful excuse to have a great time!”
Certain moments don’t work as well as others, noticeably the scene featuring the back-and-forth between Sherlock and Molly solving smaller cases and Watson dealing with boring doctor’s appointments, which seem to rely on the inherent funniness of words like “monkey glands” and “pisspot” crashing into other phrases from the other character. Saying "Those things will kill you" to Lestrade as he lights up a cigarette is also a little lame, but "You bastard" is brilliant – but not as quite as brilliant as the big hug. When the jokes do work, they set the room on fire (in a good way), with Mycroft and Sherlock’s sibling rivalry over gathering clues from the bobble hat an ever-increasing joy. Then there's the recurring mickey takes about Watson's facial catacherophe – jokes often pulled, but somehow staying fresh.
The show’s smart visual style still shines brightly, not just in the quick-cut explanations for the fall, but in shots of eyes fading into coffee cups, slow-mo chip drops, The Palace Of Westminster KERSPLODING, the camera falling down Mrs. Hudson's gullet, and that Call Of Duty-like nightvision sequence of a long-haired Sherlock on the run. And hey, a mirror scare! And near-Lucasesque screenwipes! And damn, it’s good to hear that theme tune again, especially during the first false explanation, where it's extra-catchy with all its new guitar licks an' all.
As for the riddle itself, there are a few niggles (as there have to be), such as Holmes’ Underground underling not immediately realising that Sumatra Station was an option, or that there was one fewer car/carriage between stations. And as it was November 5, you’d wonder why the whole bomb-under-the-houses-of-Parliament idea didn’t pop up earlier. And what sort of spy is so vague when it comes to vital intelligence? This case rests on a bad Underground/underground pun, man! Still, though that sort of over-analytical hogwash is something I love, I’ll keep that away from this blog and leave it to you guys in the comment section.
But before you speak your brains below, read through these choice quotes I wrote down during the Q&A for more details on how it all happened, and remember that Episode 2, The Sign of Three, is on BBC1 at 8.30pm on Sunday January 5. And in case you were worried I wasn't going to mention the actual acting from the two leads, I'm doing it now: they were both excellent. I especially loved the tube tear-up and the great work Martin Freeman's middle finger is getting these days.
On working out how The Reichenbach Fall would work… Moffat: “Working out how to do it was a long and difficult process, and one very much helped by the geography of St. Bart’s hospital, as you wouldn't see the body hit the pavement.”
Gatiss: “We were going to do it as a two-stage trick. There was going to be a platform, like a window-cleaning platform, which Sherlock would hit, then another body would drop out of it. That’s why there’s a reference in the newspaper to the refit of a historic hospital, then we changed our minds because Toby Haynes, the director of Reichenbach, noticed that the ambulance station was at exactly the right point.”
On the tube plot…
Gatiss: “There is no Sumatra tube station. The giant rat of Sumatra!* Sumatra road is in Hampstead, which is a little off Westminster, but I couldn’t resist it. But there is a station in Hampstead called The Bull & Bush, which was never opened. There are platforms and stairs but no service building. But I love the tube enormously.”
On working with Cumberbatch’s real parents… Cumberbatch: “I’m so proud of them. I think they’re perfect casting as my parents. They’re card-carrying Equity members, but it’s nerve-wracking. They’re actors. But they get nervous as well, and yet they were brilliant. ”
Gatiss: “This is the first time I think we’ve really ‘gone beyond’. I don't think Sherlock’s parents had ever been shown, and it felt like the right thing to do in the third season: be even cheekier. Why not, you know? Sherlock and Mycroft are like Niles and Frasier Crane – they have very ordinary parents. And Sherlock is more likely to be a product of a lovely family than a broken family.”
On Bendict Cumberbatch’s nicknames from his Chinese fans…
Cumberbatch: “They are ‘Bit Of A Dickhead Also A Nice Guy’ and ‘Curly Fu’. Thanks China.”
On the Empty Hearse fan club…
Gatiss: “Knowing how big it’s become, you can’t not address [the fan presence]. We started with Kitty Reilly’s character in The Reichenbach Fall, introduced wearing the deerstalker. It’s an elision between reality and fiction. It’s about Sherlock becoming as much of a celebrity as he is in the fiction of the novels, so it was just a way of doing that.”
“Then the idea of [former forensics team member] Anderson (Jonathan Aris), like The Pink Panther's Inspector Dreyfus, has lost his job and his mind really, obsessed and guilt-stricken about what he’s done. [Then there was] this idea that he might put together a group that might concoct theories. Which in a way is like what people have done, in the real world.”
On the fake solutions to The Reichenbach Fall…
Gatiss: “It was a collision around ideas of Derren Brown being involved.”
Moffat: “It was very early when we talked about starting that way. That’s when all the theories were starting to kick off. We though we’d make a bananas one…”
Gatiss: “He says in the second of the third solutions that “there is a system of Japanese wrestling…” before he gets cut off. That’s [a reference to] Conan Doyle’s LUDICROUS solution to the end of The Reichenbach Fall.”
On the episodes to come…
Gatiss: “Episode 2 is called The Sign Of Three, where John and Mary Morstan get married. “
Freeman: “This wedding is much more eventful [than my own real-life wedding]. In really entertaining, thrill-riding ways.” Moffat: “Episode 3 is based on The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton. A really interesting villain, a really hideous villain, and the only character that Sherlock Holmes genuinely hates. He doesn’t genuinely hate Moriarty – apparently – but he doe absolutely hate Charles Augustus Magnusson, as he’s become, with Lars Mikkelsen doing an absolutely brilliant, terrifying new villain.”
On whether Moriarty is really dead…
Moffat: “They did not fake suicide at each other. Imagine how stupid you’d feel if you bumped into each other afterwards!”
*Remember Gatiss's original clue for this episode. "Rat!"
lollyp333 Posted on Wednesday January 1, 2014, 22:35
Rubbish. Smug, boring and self indulgent. The first series was superb as they had an unknown actor etc. Now that the fanbase is established, they are just having a jolly time a la Dr Who. Won't bother watching anymore, it already feels old and tired.
keveen Posted on Thursday January 2, 2014, 01:04
Yes all the journalists seem to be giving automatic thumbs up for what was a very poor start. At least you noticed the many flaws. I loved the first 2 series but they've lost the plot this time - literally. Modern screen writers cannot outdo Conan Doyle for plots. It is was a mistake to let them try. The point about the previous episodes is that the new plot paralleled the original stories. Each episode was both a parallel and a parody of sorts and that worked brilliantly.
Now the writers have been given free rein they have descended into predictable shmaltz and soap. The headline for the next episode is telling us that Sherlock has to make a wedding speech. Comedy and silliness have taken over. Boring! If this was the first episode nobody would be saying such great things. It is 5 out of 10 for this one. Hardly any real detective work, a loose sort of plot full of holes and oh no not another Moriarty mad villain I hope. We don't want a relationship story. It is Sherlock Holmes. It is not a comedy, even if it is often funny. Too late now. Now it is all suitable for children. Boring!
Pandora Posted on Thursday January 2, 2014, 11:27
I loved it and had to laugh so hard at times! The plot about the terrorist attack was not played out very well in this episode but I didn't mind that they focused more on the relationships between the characters. It's a big strength for the series and I thought it was very well written.
dunkah Posted on Thursday January 2, 2014, 11:44
I liked it. It was messy, flawed and a shedload of fun. There was too much end tying to do for it to be as focused as previous episodes. My biggest issue was the direction didn't seem as solid as series 1&2 but that's just picking nits. Welcome back Sherlock and John, we missed you.
DanTDavies Posted on Tuesday January 7, 2014, 15:45
really disappointed with Moffat and Co's criticism of Sir Arthur, but then I suppose respect of character and history has never been their strong suit has it [gay Shakespeare anyone?].
By the way the first episode was riddled with holes and the whole thing was insufferably smug.